Rulindo firm looks to turn Rwanda’s isombe into major export product

The government promotes agro-processing to help make Rwanda’s products more competitive besides enabling farmers earn better from their sweat.
Farmers prepare to transport cassava leaves to a collection centre. / Donata Kiiza
Farmers prepare to transport cassava leaves to a collection centre. / Donata Kiiza

The government promotes agro-processing to help make Rwanda’s products more competitive besides enabling farmers earn better from their sweat. It is this ‘gospel’ of value-addition that challenged Pierre-Damien Mbatezimana to find a way to improve the shelf life of isombe, a local delicacy, and make it more appealing to buyers in and outside Rwanda.

Ordinarily, isombe is made by pounding fresh cassava leaves in homes or sold ‘ready to use’ in markets and supermarkets but the process is energy consuming and there are less efforts aimed at preserving the product used as source.

Mbatezimana has, however, found mechanisms of processing, preserving, as well as flavouring isombe under his Shekina Enterprises company brand and targets the foreign market, with 70 per cent of products being exported.

Mbatezimana says value-addition is essential to penetrate global markets, adding that the crop could be a key foreign exchange earner for the country pushing for a diversified export base.

Flavoured isombe

The managing director of Shikina also believes that his innovation to dry, process and flavour isombe is a milestone in the commercialisation of the product, particularly on the international stage, besides prolonging its shelf life.

“Previously, fresh isombe could be transported only by air which is very costly. So, when it reached Europe or the US I was inspired by their lifestyle to innovate and make a product that has all isombe ingredients, but takes about five minutes to prepare,” Mbatezimana explains.

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Mbatezimana (middle) poses for a photo with workers at a collection centre. / Donata Kiiza

He adds that the firm’s Ala Damiano instant cassava leaves powder has two flavours; fish and beef flavours and can last for up to two years before going bad.

Cooking pounded fresh cassava leaves takes three to four hours, while dried cassava leaves require 30 minutes.

“This product is easy to cook…the product can be used by anyone. One needs to just boil a litre of water and then add the isombe powder and stir. In five minutes, it will be ready,” Mbatezimana explains.

He says value-addition has made it easy to ferry the product, adding that one can order for it and it is sent by post, road, sea and air. He adds that such innovations have turned cassava into a major cash crop.

Supporting farmers, women

Mbatezimana says the firm works with more than 1,500 farmers, especially women farmer cooperatives, in Rulindo District, where Shekina Enterprise is based.

He adds that they are organising the farmers to invest more in the crop, noting that the firm targets to be working with 5,000 farmers by 2020.

“We have managed to organise the supply chain by grouping the farmers into five cooperatives.

“We have also constructed five collection centres where they deliver the raw material (fresh cassava leaves). The collection centres are managed by 100 women and girls from the neighbourhood.”

Each centre is manned by 20 workers, he adds.

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The firm’s isombe brand for export market. / Donata Kiiza

The entrepreneur says the girls are also equipped with business management and savings skills, noting that they save half of their earnings with local SACCOs to secure their future and ensure financial independence.

“After a year one can use the savings as seed money to start their own small businesses when they will leave the collection centre,” he says.

Quality certification

Shekina Enterprises works with the Rwanda Standards Board to develop new standards for its products. The firm is, however, Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) certified, and is on the final stage of securing the International Organisation for Standardisation certificate, according to Mbatezimana.

Challenges

He, however, says the firm, like other businesses in the country, faces challenges in accessing capital for expansion. They also lack quality packaging materials on the local market.

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